China's unregulated junk buyers have transformed the electronic garbage of wealthy countries into small fortunes for years, fueling factories with raw materials and spare parts and often tainting rivers with toxic runoff. As trade flourished at the margins of manufacturing boomtowns, China became the world's biggest importer of electronic waste, even as it produced more of the stuff at home.
Now the government is teaming up with the private sector, deploying the brains behind Baidu, one of the world's most powerful search engines, state of the art recycling technology, and a raft of costly subsidies as it races to collect electronic waste before urban trash pickers channel it into the country's vast, unregulated junk industry.
"We were searching for a way to get away from the informal sector, where there are all of these health and environmental hazards and get it into the formal sector where you can manage it better," said Patrick Haverman, deputy country director for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Beijing.
The UNDP worked with Baidu's Big Data Lab and TCL, an electronics manufacturer, which has been recycling e-waste since 2009. The result is a light application that will use visual recognition technology and big data to offer consumers a price on their old stuff.
Accessing a website developed by Baidu, users upload pictures of their old technology and, if the price is right, set a time for delivery to a government-approved clean recycling facility.
"Those informal workers are very localized -- they have troops that scan community by community for the e-waste collection," said Wu Peng, program manager for UNDP's Energy and Environment Team. "There is no way for TCL to hire so many people."
While local scrappers use their manpower to shout through windows and rattle up and down stairwells, TCL can ride Baidu's app right into their pockets.
The cost of competing
All of this is costly. To make officially sanctioned facilities like those built by TCL competitive with risky mom and pop enterprises, the government pays steep subsidies for each device they recycle. Even then, it's unlikely they'll be able to beat the prices offered by informal outfits that refurbish products and reuse parts bringing in a much better margin than the raw materials large automated recycling plants churn out.